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Sustainability is on the move. Let's keep it on the right track

COP26 showed that momentum around sustainability is growing. Pictured: Climate action at COP26 in Glasgow

COP26 showed that momentum around sustainability is growing. Image: Unsplash/William Gibson

Sue Brown
Executive Group Director Sustainability, Worley
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Governance for Sustainability

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • A shared purpose around sustainability is on the rise throughout the business world.
  • Achieving our net-zero goals will depend on both collaboration and redefining value.
  • We can learn a lot about this approach from First Nations cultures around the world.

The middle Saturday of COP26 in Glasgow last year was a ‘day off’ from negotiations. It was the day that a peaceful protest march, attended by 100,000 ordinary citizens including families, school children, activists, First Nations and others worked its way through the streets of Glasgow.

Bringing sustainability principles to life

I joined this moving expression of concern. As a sustainability executive for a global corporate organization, my work is largely about ‘witnessing for the middle’, what Robert Socolow sees as taking a middle line on polarized issues to drive tangible action. As a result, I generally avoid mass protests.

That march, however, was a powerful expression of shared purpose from a diverse community, made even more powerful by its peaceful nature.

I see a similar sense of shared purpose growing within the business world, and the heavy industries I’m engaged with – including fuel extraction, chemical plants, large mines and smelters, pipelines, and power stations. These are industries that sit at the foundation of our economies. That influence the stability of countries. That we rely on for the modern conveniences that many of us enjoy.

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Yet science tells us that these come at an environmental price that we cannot afford.

Rather than turn away from these industries, the company I work for chooses to lean in and be a partner to deliver real, tangible improvement. Because there is no climate solution, and no sustainable development, without transformation of these industries.

To us, such transformation looks like a refinery switching to low-emissions fuel production, or a smelter to cleaner gas. A clean-hydrogen value chain is emerging that allows planes to fly and fertilizer to grow food without an emissions burden. Of keeping businesses profitable so they can decarbonize. Of net-zero commitments that move from declarations of intent to action.

As we get on with this, what’s emerging is a complex delivery challenge that we are only just beginning to define. The solution to this complex challenge will require the balancing of environmental, social, and economic outcomes and truly bringing sustainability principles to life.

Value now means more than just dollars

In August 2021 we published a paper with The Andlinger Center for Energy & the Environment at Princeton University on building the infrastructure of net-zero. Titled From Ambition to Reality: Weaving the Threads of Net-zero Delivery, what emerges is not a specific financial or technical challenge but an immense infrastructure delivery challenge. The urgency of the issues demands new thinking.

Transformational shifts are needed in how we develop and deploy infrastructure, or we risk failing in the mission to achieve net-zero by mid-century. In fact, we may not even get halfway. One of these shifts is redefining value, which is about the need to move from a purely financial focus towards a broader definition of value. This includes environmental values, community or social values, and an inclusive transition.

This means we must be alert to the potential for ‘collateral damage’ from any action taken to address climate change. We cannot address climate change using practices that deny people clean water, or life-changing energy access, or destroying critical ecologies, or isolating, embittering, and building intractable conflict within communities.

Socolow calls this ‘vigilance’, avoiding the pitfalls of taking isolated action, and none of this will be news to my ESG peers. We see it across the interconnectivity in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the compromises often needed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls it 'maladaptation', and we must avoid it as we find truly sustainable solutions to the climate challenge.

In practice I see sustainability moving more toward systems thinking, particularly in ecosystems. Not in the literal sense of biological systems but the interconnectivity of complex regional and global systems, be they financial, ecological, or social. We see this in the shift toward integrated reporting of companies’ performance across both commercial and ESG aspects, and new international standards which lend comparability and credibility to sustainability scorecards.

A cultural shift towards collaboration for solving sustainability puzzle

Of course, no one jurisdiction or company can solve this sustainability puzzle with all its dependencies and challenges. Working collaboratively and learning from each other we have a much better chance.

In From Ambition to Reality, we talk about the delivery of net-zero being a mission that requires a level of cooperation not seen before between organizations and the public. The extent of collaboration needed will make many parties uncomfortable, pushing boundaries of commercial protectionism, legal contracting strategies, and redefining acceptable risk. It will also require the forging of relationships never thought possible previously.

And we must learn. Not only from other companies and jurisdictions but also from nature and our First Nations, both of whom have refined their designs and practices over millennia.

The IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report noted the need for us to learn from and mimic nature in infrastructure design, particularly as relates to climate-resilient design. Think of the example of using mangroves in estuaries to help with storm surges, with the added benefit of greater marine productivity, and so forth.

There is much to learn from our First Nations. In Australia, where I live, we enjoy an incredible natural environment and landscape thanks to the sustainable practices that our First Nations Australians practiced for more than 60,000 years. This stands in stark contrast to the damage wrought in the 250 years since European settlement.

Learning in this way, and forging such collaborations need to become business as usual if we are truly to address the climate and other sustainability challenges facing the world.

Addressing our sustainability issues requires more than activism. But the Glasgow march was a reminder of the responsibility and accountability of people like me and the businesses in which we work.

Sustainability is on the move, but we must continue to find new ways of working together across sectors, geographies and cultures. We must learn from nature and our most ancient cultures. We must be informed by science, conscious of the complexity, and know we cannot do it alone.

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